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"Oliver Twist" centers around both a social and a personal theme. The social theme states that for every orphan who is rescued and encouraged to establish his identity in the world, there are many other orphans who are discarded to suffer and die a miserable death. Oliver is one of the orphans who has the strength to fight against his oppressors and is lucky to find a benefactor like Mr. Brownlow who helps the boy to assert his right as an individual. However, there are many unfortunate orphans in the workhouse, ill-treated and malnourished, who die before they become aware of the world around them. Dick is one such boy who is endowed with a natural goodness and a cheerful presence but is denied the opportunity to reveal his latent potential. Thus he dies an untimely death.
On a personal level, the theme of Oliver Twist is the struggle of an individual in a harsh world for his survival. Oliver finds himself helpless as he is oppressed by his superiors in the workhouse and corrupted by Fagin and his criminal associates. However, his innate goodness and instinct for survival help him to remain uncorrupted and he emerges stronger after his trial.
Dickens exposes the criminal world and conveys the message that crime leads to ignominy and isolation. The other minor theme that he brings up in the novel is that the dead have the power of influencing the living. Oliver's antagonist, Monks, the members of the criminal world, and the Bumbles who try to harm him bring dishonor to themselves and meet with a miserable end. When they are unable to escape from the eyes of law, they look helpless.
While reading the novel, the readers might feel the presence of the dead influencing certain living characters. Oliver sees the vision of his mother whenever he is showered with affection. When Mrs. Bedwin looks into his eyes with love and concern, the boy remembers his mother: "Perhaps she does see me" whispered Oliver, folding his hands together, "perhaps she has sat by me. I almost feel as if she had."
The vision helps him to realize the worth of goodness and ward off evil in trying circumstances. Mr. Brownlow remembers fondly his deceased fianc‚e and her brother and, for the sake of their love, is prepared to forgive the misdeeds committed by Monks. The same love induces him to protect Oliver. The dead cast a positive influence on these characters, while for Monks and Sikes, the influence of the dead brings negative results. Monks inherits the feeling of hatred from his mother and even after her death, expresses this feeling towards all those who are good to Oliver. Sikes is haunted by the vision of Nancy after he kills her mercilessly. It chases him wherever he goes and finally, when he plans to make his escape good, it confronts him and causes his death.
The prevailing mood of the novel is grave and serious though its effect is considerably suppressed by the presence of benign characters like Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie who bring the story to a happy end. The inclusion of comic interludes supplied by Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Corney and the Artful Dodger also provide relief.
Through the devices of irony and humor, Dickens disperses the cloud of gloom from the novel and introduces a ray of hope.